My son-in-law is a deep thinker who went to a college for exceptionally bright students where they study the “Western Canon” — those works of literature, philosophy, music and art that have shaped our culture. So while other guys were reading Playboy, he was reading Plato.
Then, he went even deeper and got an advanced degree in philosophy at one of the nation’s finest Jesuit universities. More Plato, but no Bluto.
I can’t even get through the owner’s manual for my Toyota, so I admire a fellow who exercises his brain with philosophical musings and asks the big questions like “Who am I? Who are you? Who is our president?” My metaphysical questions are generally limited to “Who’s picking up the bar tab?”
Then, one afternoon while we were sitting on the deck, discussing Descartes’ famous proposition, “I stink, therefore I am,” there was a commotion in the birdbath. He immediately jumped up and exclaimed, “Look! There’s a big blue bird in the birdbath!” Even though I was impressed with his alliteration, I was stunned that he didn’t know it was a blue jay.
Politely and eruditely, I explained, “That’s a blue jay, which is also known as Cyanocitta cristata.” (I know it sounds like an Italian pasta dish, but it’s actually Greek or Latin or something or other for “big blue bird with long beak.”)
My first question — and I don’t think I could find the answer in the collected works of Aristotle — is how could a man in his 30s not know what a blue jay is? Maybe he read too many Greek philosophers and not enough natural philosophers like Henry David Thoreau.
My amazement increased when I realized his wife, aka my daughter, didn’t know what a blue jay is either … even though as a child we took her and her sisters hiking, fishing, canoeing and camping. Where did I go wrong?
I fear that not just one generation, but at least two and possibly three, don’t know what a blue jay is at a time when the natural world is imperiled and there are cutbacks to organizations and agencies committed to protecting the environment.
I grew up in a place called Pine Rock Park, surrounded by forests and fields, streams and hills. We played in the woods, built tree forts and went trout fishing in the Far Mill River. I can still remember the pool where I caught my first rainbow and how my heart was pounding as I reeled it in.
We climbed apple trees in the orchards behind our home. We played baseball and flew kites in the fields. Instead of staying in the house, chained to the TV or the computer screen, we went outside from the morning until night, when our parents had to drag us home. Life was real, not virtual.
That’s not to suggest we knew the names of all the birds in Pine Rock Park, but I knew most of them, and when I was 10, I befriended a crow that would land on my shoulder when I was walking home from the school bus stop.
Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” says, “Americans around my age, baby boomers or older, enjoyed a kind of free, natural play that seems, in the era of kid pagers, instant messaging and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact. Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically … Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment, but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading.”
He calls the problem “nature-deficit disorder” and says the decreasing exposure to nature is harming young people and society.
“At the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical and spiritual health directly to our association with nature — in positive ways,” he says.
Last week when my son-in-law visited, he looked outside, where we have 10 birdfeeders. A menagerie of wildlife, including woodpeckers, woodchucks, songbirds, chipmunks, squirrels and skunks, wanders through the yard. And as my daughter said, “It looks like the Bronx Zoo are there.” Without the Bronx. I hope my grandson, who is one year old, will learn the lessons that come from an appreciation of the outdoors.
Even though I spent a good portion of my life reading Plato and his Greek buddies, I believe you can learn equally valuable lessons from nature. As Thoreau said, “We need the tonic of wildness. We can never have enough of nature.”